Social Research: Ontological and Epistemological Assumptions

Subject: Sciences
Pages: 12
Words: 3330
Reading time:
13 min
Study level: PhD


According to Baert (2005), social research refers to a systematised form of investigation. The aim of such an undertaking is to gain knowledge on social problems and phenomena in human society. On the other hand, Bryman (2004) defines this form of research as a scientific undertaking that utilises logical methods in discovering or verifying existing knowledge. In addition to the two definitions above, it is apparent that social research entails analysing the sequences of the discovered facts. The interrelationships and causal explanations with regards to these elements are also addressed. Social research investigation also pays attention to the natural laws governing these facts.

According to Baert (2005), researchers have to engage in critical thinking in relation to the philosophical issues pertaining to their study. Failure to do this may have serious implications on the outcomes of their work. Consequently, social researchers are advised to embrace critical evaluation of facts as the first step in their studies. The analysis is considered very essential since it highlights the constructs underpinning the research design.

Research Philosophy and Theories

The two concepts are closely related. On its part, philosophy entails the generation of knowledge in relation to social reality. The underlying philosophy, whether ontological or epistemological, provides the notion behind research design. On the other hand, ontological and epistemological philosophical research assumptions provide the basis for the definition and shape of any inquiry.

Research philosophy thus considers the various assumptions regarding ones viewpoint towards the general social world. Ontological assumptions essentially define the notions underlying nature of humanity and reality. The philosophy underlying this assumption is that of giving existence to the phenomena under study (Bryman 2004). The various qualities of any phenomena whether real or abstract are ascertained hence providing foundation for the inquiry. The philosophy underlying epistemological assumptions on the other hand informs the knowledge approach to the inquiry (Cohen 1970).

The quality of any inquiry is thus influenced by researchers’ understanding of the underpinning philosophy. Considering the two dimensions of philosophical assumptions, human behaviours require objective and subjective analysis to arise arrive at valid generalisations. It is also apparent that research philosophy orientation whether ontological or epistemological leads to varying results which are valid in their own right.

Relationship between Social Research, Ontology, and Epistemology

Researchers have to adopt different ontological perspectives or viewpoints towards social reality in enquiries they undertake. On the one hand, social reality can be viewed by embracing the assumption that the world of social interactions does exist independently of what it is perceived to be (Mouzelis 1997). Social reality world can be regarded as a rational and external entity which is responsive to scientific as well as positivist modes or methods of enquiry (Cohen 1970). Ontological research foundations have traditionally influenced and informed research. The influence of these foundations has been dominant especially in the domain of physical sciences (Creswell 2003).

Social reality can also be viewed from another perspective. According to Delanty and Strydom (2003), social reality can also be viewed as having multiple contributors. Social reality is an epistemological construct of individuals interacting, while simultaneously seeking to make meaning of their world actively. A researcher hence can approach search for truth in the lived experiences of people, by carrying out rigorous interpretation.

Both approaches to social research are informed by cultural, historical as well as philosophical backgrounds, requiring explicit addressing. Social researchers sat all level need to their research process, as well as their findings. Consequently, they need to be aware of the ontological philosophical assumptions providing basis for their arguments.

According to Nagel (1979), epistemology entails exploring issues concerning creation, as well as dissemination of knowledge especially in the areas of inquiry. The epistemological nature of social research is derived from scientific investigations. The most influential field in this respect has been that of the physical sciences (Chalmers 1999).

Fay (1996) postulates that scientific methods were conceptualised as providing factual conclusions concerning physical sciences. In addition, the approaches provide deductive realities in various such studies. Such areas include logic and mathematics. Based on this tradition, external conditions can be controlled as well as monitored systematically. In addition, they can be subjugated to experimental testing into revealing truths regarding nature of atoms, mathematical mechanics and concepts, as well as the nature of human behaviour (Chalmers 1999).

Epistemology is based on various ontological notions. One of them is the idea that human behaviour is determined by a controlled external realism (Creswell 2003). According to Delanty and Strydom (2003), a conceptual perspective exists, within which human behaviours and actions are determined by various inputs. The inputs are however not necessarily of their own making. Ultimately, it is apparent that the process of social research extensively borrows from both the philosophical studies of ontology and epistemology.

Fundamental Concepts and Assumptions in Ontology and Epistemology and their Impacts and Influence on Social Research

Social sciences are essentially lodged between humanities and the natural sciences. Consequently, researcher processes on one hand often pose the dilemma of whether they should be objective and systematic as posed in epistemology. On the other hand, the dilemma of whether the ontological human approach should take effect arises.

According to May and Malcolm (1996), social research methodologies are subdivided into two major categories namely quantitative and qualitative. Quantitative research methodology primarily focuses on investigation of things which are observable and measurable in some way (Baert 1998). Since the main aim of research is the meaning events have on individual beings, social scientists prefer qualitative research methodology better. Qualitative research methodology apparently focuses on understanding why things in the social world are the way they are, as well as the behaviour of people (Lakatos 1980).

The differing research methodologies have begotten intellectual debate purists from both sides. According to Benton (1977), quantitative purists advance assumptions consistent with positivist paradigm. The belief behind the paradigm is that social observations require treatment as entities; in a similar manner physical scientists handle physical phenomena (Baert 1998).

Qualitative purists are opposed to the ideas promoted by positivists. Constructivists contend that reality is subjective and multiple, and that it is constructed by the participants socially (Bird 1998). Both methodologies are however acknowledged as means of conducting research in social science. The relative preference of each methodology however is dependent on philosophical issues. The issues relate to the questions of ontology (nature of reality), as well as those of epistemology (nature of knowledge).

According to Davis (1959), selection of any particular research methodology is based on the paradigm guiding the research activity. More specifically, the chosen methodology depends on the one hand the notion regarding nature of humanity and reality (ontology). On the other hand, the same depends on the theory of knowledge informing the research (epistemology), as well as how the desired knowledge can be gained [methodology] (Barnes 1995).

According to Davis (1959), ontological and epistemological assumptions are the central discourses in understanding the nature of social research. Methodological assumptions also play a very vital role. Apparently, these constituents establish shape, and also define the conduct of any particular enquiry (Lakatos 1980).

Epistemological Assumptions, Issues, and Considerations in Social Research

Traditionally, social sciences have been regarded as largely being similar to natural sciences. Social science researchers are also concerned with discovering of laws regarding human behaviour (Musgrave & Lakatos 1965). Vital epistemological arguments regarding conducting of social research thus arise. Some of the concerns raised include whether the same principles employed in natural sciences can also be used in studying the social world (Porta & Keating 2008).

Two epistemological positions, namely positivism and constructivism (interpretevism) have emerged from these debates (Laudan 1978). Karl (2002) also echoes this viewpoint by pointing out some questions brought about by epistemological assumptions. The queries include what is, or should be the knowledge fit for a particular discipline. Consequently, the major epistemological issue in social sciences remains whether same principles and procedures in natural sciences are applicable in social science.

According to Ritchie and Lewis (2003), epistemology poses more questions which are very relevant in social research. The questions include the relationship between the known and the unknown, as well as with the person who apprehends. Other questions include how people know what they do, as well as what really qualifies as knowledge. Answering these questions significantly influences how a social scientist chooses to approach social research at any one given time.

The purpose of research according to the positivists entails scientific explanation. According to Ritchie and Lewis (2003), positivism regards social science as an organised technique of combining deductive logic. The logic is combined with precise verifiable observations pertaining to individuals’ behaviour (Porta & Keating 2008). The target is to discover, as well as confirm probabilistic causal laws, used in prediction of general patterns of individual’s activity (Musgrave & Lakatos 1965).

Positivists advance the idea that social reality entails existence of verifiable facts. Such elements are independent of subjective thoughts held by individuals. The thoughts are regarded as being governed by cause and effect laws (Porta & Keating 2008). In addition, social reality patterns are regarded as stable, and that their knowledge is additive.

A key assumption from the positivists’ paradigm proposes the objective of social science as development of the most concrete method possible. The method is for deriving the nearest approximation of reality (Davis 1959). Researchers employing the positivists’ perspective give explanations in quantitative terms. For instance, they elaborate how variables interact with, shape events, as well as influence outcomes (Mouzelis 1997). Consequently, such social researchers pursue their objectives on the basis of experimental studies.

According to Ritchie and Lewis (2003), the positivists’ framework advances that all reliable knowledge has it basis on manipulation or direct observation of natural phenomena. The knowledge is either arrived at through empirical, but in most instances experimental methods. Halfpenny (1982) regards positivist researchers as “resource” researchers. Positivist researchers seek to explicate as well as predict social world happenings. The objective is pursued through searching for regularities and the causal relationships in constituent elements (Bird 1998). The positivists approach employs statistical analyses. It entails the abstraction of measurement criteria.

The other epistemological position or paradigm in social sciences is that of constructivists, also known as interpretevists (Bird 1998). The interpretevists perspective is the theoretical framework utilised in most qualitative researches. The perspective views the world as constructed, experienced and interpreted by individuals as interact with each other and the greater social systems (Halfpenny 1982).

Craib (1992) poses interpretevism as epistemology essential for researchers in determining differences between people, especially in their capacity as social actors. Interpretevists researchers are hence also regarded as “feeling” researchers (Halfpenny 1982). The feeling aspect of interpretevists arises from the fact that they also play the role of social actors. Interpretevists also interpret daily social roles in conformity to meanings given these roles. In addition, they interpret social functions of others, in conformity with their own meanings (Bird 1998).

The nature of inquiries perpetuated by the interpretevists paradigm is interpretive. Consequently, the purpose of enquiries involves comprehending particular phenomena as, opposed to generalising the population (Sarantakos 2005). Social researchers embracing the interpretevists paradigm are naturalistic. This is since they implement in the real world situations unfolding naturally (Halfpenny 1982). More specifically, they are usually non-manipulative, non-controlling, and unobtrusive.

According to Jeffrey (1968), the interpretive and the positivist researchers concur on the fact that behaviour of human beings can be regular and patterned. The difference however arises in that regard this on the basis of cause and effect laws. Interpretevists on the other hand view these patterns as arising from meaning systems generated by people as the interact socially (Jeffrey 1968).

Interpretevists researchers emphasise on comprehending the world from the perspective of firsthand experience. Quotations from real conversations derived from insiders’ perspectives as well their truthful reporting is also highly considered (Sarantakos 2005). Consequently, they rarely test the laws of human behaviour, but utilise data collecting methods sensitive to the context of their research (Halfpenny 1982).

Interpretevists are thus able to gather rich and detailed descriptions of social phenomena through encouraging participants to be free as they speak (Sarantakos 2005). The dominant data gathering techniques utilised by interpretevists hence include naturalistic observations and focus group discussions (Halfpenny 1982). Reliability and credibility are central to the ideas promoted by interpretevists. The two elements are used to determine standards of validity.

Ontological Assumptions, Issues, and Considerations in Social Research

The other aspect of research which is very crucial and essential for researchers to understand is that of ontology. Scott (1995) postulates that ontology is the theory exploring nature of social entities. Ontology reviews and explores the nature of natural phenomena, considered as an entity admissible into a knowledge system (Halfpenny 1982).

Ritchie and Lewis (2003) postulate that ontology basically points to the assumptions made regarding nature of reality. Since ontology is about the nature of reality, it s components include entities operating therein, as well as the interrelationships between them (Barnes 1995). According to May and Malcolm (1996) ontological queries with regard to social science research relate to the nature of reality. Two broad and also contrasting positions arise hereby. The positions include objectivism which holds that existence of an independent reality (Barnes 1995). The other position is that of constructionism and subjectivism. The two pose the assumption that reality is a consequence of social processes (Sarantakos 2005).

Ritchie and Lewis (2003) advance that constructionism refers to the notions that social phenomena emanates from perceptions and consequent actions of social actors interested in their existence. The process can thus be regarded continuous. The various social phenomena become subject to continual revisions, trough social interaction processes (Sarantakos 2005). Ritchie and Lewis (2003) further advance that there are several fundamental ontological assumptions on constructionism. These approaches to social sciences consider reality as the projection of human imaginations.

Concentration on meaning in social research reflects emphasis on the subjective, as well as construed nature of events as constructionism or subjectivism (Barnes 1995). The approach emphasises more on micro-interactions, depicting them as the source of information regarding conception of social life (Benton 1977).

Constructivist researchers thus focus on what human beings think, feel, and communicate. Consequently, they attempt to comprehend as well as explain the reason for different experiences between people (Archer 1996). Constructionism hence regards researcher’s role as entailing appreciation and interpretatation of different constructions. In addition, it also entails comprehending meanings, and the basis of human experiences (Mouzelis 1997).

According to Ritchie and Lewis (2003), quantitative research holds relationships with the various viewpoints in the objectivity of the social world. Ideas of causation in social processes are also included. Constructionists advance the belief that social phenomena, its existence, and associated meanings are independent of the diverse social actors (Baert 1998).

Objectivism hence has its basis on the assumptions that, social phenomena, and the categories employed in daily discourses exist independent of actors (Ritchie & Lewis 2003). The aim of social science is determining predictable reality objectively as much as possible (Baert 1998). Classical objectivists hold specific opinions regarding the nature of knowledge. They argue that science leads to the development of successive models of social and scientific realism. The theories are ever progressing, and they are getting closer to the correct and actual description of reality (Archer 1996).

Achievement of final, complete descriptive account of reality may never be attained. However, a notion is advanced that genuine empirical knowledge entails universal logical organisations of inferences (Mouzelis 1997). The structures results can be however tested versus data which is theory-neutral. This belief is further associated with he notion that social research can embrace natural research methods. The methods include those especially using numbers in measurement of relationships between things (Baert 1998).

According to Lakatos (1980), objectivists regard the social world as a concrete phenomenon. In addition, social world is also regarded as being real, and similar to the natural world. According to Mouzelis (1997), the social world is a real, hard and concrete thing in the open. Consequently, it has impact on each and every individual, in one some way. Objectivism notion of reality is thus founded on concrete behaviour. Consequently, objectivism stresses the essence of researching nature of relationships between elements in their components (Baert 1998).

Goals of Social Research

.Each and every strategy or approach applied in research, whether it is quantitative or qualitative has got its particular goals. The goal of social research can hence be regarded as what researchers expect to achieve by the completion of the research process (Lakatos 1980). The goal of every approach to social research thus differs. The differences are founded on the ontological and epistemological assumptions which underpin the utilised paradigm or methodology (Archer 1996).

Social researchers employing quantitative methodology for instance attempt to quantify social phenomena. In addition, they entail the collection and analysis of data. Epistemological positivists’ claims hence play a very vital role in development of knowledge in this case. This is since cause and effect thinking, reduction of variables to questions and hypotheses, as well as measurements and observations are used to test theories.

Social researchers employing qualitative methodology concern themselves with comprehending meanings from social phenomena. Consequently, they focus on links between a larger numbers of attributes in the cases being addressed. In qualitative investigations, generation of facts is informed by ontological constructions. In this case, research design is guided by a number of factors. They involve the reality of, among others, case studies and narratives.

A major underlying paradigm in all research undertakings partakes to knowledge creation. Researchers seek to determine how the research findings of one can be generalised into other contexts (Baert 2005). Researchers always employ methods befitting their research questions depending on how they believe and accept a given epistemology. Researchers seek to arrive at how various paradigms fit perceived needs and values of research project stakeholders. Consequently, they need to comprehend how the various assumptions underpinning the paradigms fit usage.

One of the major aims of social research entails comprehending how human beings invent structures. Determining this helps them make sense of the surrounding happenings (Mouzelis 1997). Researchers thus have to exert effort and get closest possible to the subject under study from the viewpoint of epistemology. Due to the existence of multiple ontological assumptions, researchers undertake studies with the objective of deriving at and reporting multiple realities (Lakatos 1980). According to Ritchie and Lewis (2003), by collecting actual words from various research participants, researchers can provide proof of multiple realities. In addition, this should be offered from diverse individual perspectives or objectives.


Both qualitative and quantitative research strategies derive their foundations from ontological and epistemological assumptions. In addition, both strategies are equally important and useful. The various ontological and epistemological assumptions in social research lead to different results from the type of research strategy employed. In some cases research questions are addressed utilising both strategies. However, the arising findings and associated generalisations are always bound to be different.

Description of the different paradigms reveals that there are various approaches competing in social research. The paradigms differ on the basis of the related philosophical assumptions. The assumptions basically are with regard to the nature of social reality, and the purpose of science. In addition, paradigms applied by social researchers depend on their ontological, as well as epistemological perceptions.

Social research is complicated phenomenon. Consequently, the approaches adopted in different studies, as well as the objectives and underlying assumptions, vary significantly. Ontological and epistemological assumptions are used to direct the approach and methodologies used by social scientists. They are used to inform the search for particular outcomes.

Both ontological and epistemological assumptions provide social researchers with varying ways of viewing the world. Ontological assumptions provide the basis for observing, measuring and understanding social reality. This is achieved by objectifying subjects or phenomena under study, hence making them abstract entities. Epistemological assumptions on the other hand determine the best principles and procedures of approaching the phenomena under study. Epistemological assumptions thus provide the basis from which social researchers determine how to acquire and develop knowledge for a particular research process.


Archer, M 1996, ‘Social integration and system integration: developing the distinction’, Sociology, vol. 30 no. 4, pp. 679-699.

Baert, P 1998, Social theory in the twentieth century, NYU Press, New York.

Baert, P 2005, Philosophy of the social sciences: towards pragmatism, Polity Press, Illinois.

Barnes, B 1995, The elements of social theory, Princeton University Press, New Jersey.

Benton, T 1977, Philosophical Foundations of the three sociologies: international library of society, Taylor & Francis Ltd., Queensland, Australia.

Bird, A 1998, Philosophy of science: fundamentals of philosophy, McGill Queens University Press, Queensland, Australia.

Bryman, A. 2004, Social research methods, 2nd edn, Oxford University Press, London.

Chalmers, A 1999, What is this thing called science?, Hackett Publishing Co., London, U.K.

Cohen, P 1970, Modern social theory, Basic Books, Buckingham, UK.

Craib, I 1992, Modern social theory: from Parsons to Habermas, 2nd edn, Harvester Wheatsheaf, New York.

Creswell, J 2003, Research design: qualitative, quantitative and mixed method approaches, 2nd edn, Sage, New York.

Davis, K 1959, ‘The myth of functional analysis as a special method in sociology and anthropology’, American Sociological Review, vol. 35 no. 1, pp 757-772.

Delanty, G & Strydom, P 2003, Philosophies of social science: the classic and contemporary readings, Open University Press, Buckingham, UK.

Delanty, G 2005, Social science: philosophical and methodological foundations (concepts in the social sciences), 2nd edn, Open University Press, Buckingham, UK.

Fay, B 1996, Contemporary philosophy of social science: a multicultural approach, Wiley Blackwell, Boston.

Halfpenny, P 1982, Positivism and sociology: explaining social life, Unwin Hyman, New York.

Harrington, A 2005, Modern social theory: an introduction, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Jeffrey, A 1968, Positivism presuppositions and current controversies: theoretical logic in sociology, University of California Press, California.

Karl, P, 2002, Conjectures and refutations: the growth of scientific knowledge, 2nd edn, Routledge, London.

Lakatos, I 1980, Methodology of scientific research programmes: philosophical papers: volume 1, Cambridge University Press, London, U.K.

Laudan, L 1978, Progress and its problems: towards a theory of scientific, University of California Press, California.

May, T & Malcolm, W 1996, An introduction to the philosophy of social research: social research today, Routledge, London, U.K.

Mouzelis, N 1997, ‘Social and system integration: Lockwood, Habermas, Giddens’, Sociology, vol. 1 no. 1, pp. 111-119.

Musgrave, A & Lakatos, I 1965, Criticism and the growth of knowledge: proceedings of the international colloquium in the philosophy of science, Cambridge University Press, London.

Nagel, E 1979, The structure of science: problems in the logic of scientific explanation, 2nd edn, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., New York.

Porta, D & Keating, M 2008, Approaches and methodologies in the social sciences: a pluralist perspective, Cambridge University Press, London, U.K.

Ritchie, J & Lewis, J 2003, Qualitative research practice: a guide for social researchers, Sage Publication, Thousand Oaks.

Sarantakos, S 2005, Social research, 3rd edn, Macmillan Education, Melbourne, Australia.

Scott, J 1995, Sociological theory: contemporary debates, Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd., Boston.

Turner, J 2002, The structure of sociological theory, Wadsworth Publishing, London, U.K.